In Laurie R. King's With Child, adrift in mist-shrouded San Francisco mornings and alcohol-fogged nights, homicide detective Kate Martinelli can't escape the void left by her departed lover, who has gone off to rethink their relationship. But when twelve-year-old Jules Cameron comes to Kate for a professional consultation, Kate's not sure she's that desperate for distraction.
Jules is worried about her friend Dio, a homeless boy she met in a park. Dio has disappeared without a word of farewell, and Jules wants Kate to find him. Reluctant as she is, Kate can't say no—and soon she finds herself forming a friendship with the bright, quirky girl. But the search for Dio will prove to be much more than both bargained for—and it's only the beginning.
When Jules disappears while taking a trip with Kate, a desperate search begins—and Kate knows all too well the odds of finding the child alive.
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KATE CAME AWAKE to a question. She lay inert for a few seconds until it was answered, by the familiar groan of the Alcatraz foghorn, seemingly a stone’s throw from the foot of her bed. Home. Thank God.
Fingers of sweet sleep tugged at her, but for a moment she held herself back, mildly, dutifully curious. Funny, she thought muzzily, I wouldn’t have thought that noise would wake me up. I hear it all summer, like living inside a pair of asthmatic lungs, but the only time I noticed it was when they tried replacing it with that irritating electronic whine. The telephone? Don’t think it rang. If so, it’s stopped now. Let them call back at a human hour. The neighbor’s dog? Probably the dream, she decided, which had been stupefyingly tedious even to a sleeping mind, a cop’s variation on the “moving luggage from one place to another—Oh God, I’ve lost one” theme, involving the transfer of prisoners, one at a time, from cell to hallway to van to hallway to cell, each step accompanied by forms and signatures and telephone calls. Better than the hell of the last few days, she thought, but thank God I woke up before I died of boredom. Poor old gray cells too tired to come up with a decent dream. Back to sleep.
She reached up and circled her right arm around the pillow, pulled it under her with a wriggle of voluptuary delight, reached back over her shoulders for the covers and pulled them over her head, and let go, deliciously, slippery as a fish into the deep, dark, still pond of sleep.
Only to be snagged on the viciously sharp point of the doorbell and jerked rudely up into the cruel air. Her eyes flew open. Seconds later, the message reached the rest of her body. Sheets and blankets erupted, feet hit the carpeting, hand reached for dressing gown and found only the smooth wood of the closet door, reached for suitcase and found it still locked tight, reached for keys and found—she waved the search away in a gesture of futility. From behind a pair of swollen, grit-encrusted lids, her eyes steered two distant feet through the obstacles of strewn suitcases, clothing, boots, jacket, toward the stairs, and all the while she was mumbling under her breath.
“It’s Al, bound to be, I’ll kill him, where’s my gun? Hawkin, I’m going to blow you away, you bastard, I’m not on duty ’til tonight, and here you are with your jokes and your doughnuts at dawn”—she picked up the bedside clock, put it down again—“near enough dawn. Christ, where’d I put those keys? Why’d I lock the goddamn suitcase anyway, it was only in the trunk of the car, here’s my gun, I could shoot off the lock, cutesy little padlock, break it off with my teeth. Oh, the hell with it, most of me’s covered, it’s only Al. No, it can’t be Al; he’s off with Jani somewhere, that conference with the name. Not Al, must be the milkman, ha, funny girl, just as likely to be a dinosaur or a dodo or—Christ Almighty!” This last was delivered in a shout as the sleeve of a denim jacket, discarded a very few hours before in the process of unburdening herself to fall into bed, caught at her bare ankle and tried to throw her down the stairs. She deflected herself off the newel and landed on all the knobs of the chair of the electric lift, which, as her last act before leaving the house, Lee had sent back up to the top, out of the way—an action Kate had thought at the time was merely thoughtful, but which, at some point during the last few days, she had decided was symbolic. Disentangling herself from the contraption and rubbing her left thigh, Kate limped down the stairs, muttering and unkempt as a street person, a young, muscular, well-fed street person wearing nothing but a navy blue silk tank top, a pair of Campbell plaid flannel boxer shorts, and a thin gold band on the ring finger of her left hand.
She flipped on the door viewer and was surprised to see only the small porch and the street beyond. No, wait—there was a head, the top of a head of dark hair bisected by a perfect sharp part. A child. Kate reached out both hands to turn bolt and knob.
“Look, kid, if you’re out here at this ungodly hour selling Girl Scout cookies, I’m going to report you to … Jules? Is that you?”
The child on her doorstep nodded, a subdued movement so unlike the daughter of Jani Cameron that Kate had to lean forward to examine her. She wore a white T-shirt with some kind of foreign writing on it, cutoff shorts, sandals, and a backpack hanging from one thin shoulder; her glossy black hair was in its usual long, tight braids, and she had a Band-Aid on her left knee and a tattoo on the right—no, not an actual tattoo, just a drawing done in blue ink, smudged and fading. Her skin was browner than when Kate had seen her last, in the winter, but it had an odd tinge to it, Kate noted, and a strange, withered sort of texture.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked sharply.
“I just needed to see you, Casey. Kate. Do you think I could come in? It’s kind of cold out here.”
Kate realized simultaneously that she was huddled behind the door more from self-protection than from modesty, and that the reason the child looked so gray and pinched was that she was half-frozen, shivering and damp in the dripping fog on this lovely late August morning in sunny California. Perceptive of you, Martinelli, Kate told herself as she stood back to let Jules in. Just call me Shirley Holmes.
“It was warm when I left this morning,” said Jules apologetically. “I forgot about the fog you get here. It comes over the hills like a giant wave, doesn’t it? A tsunami, it’s called, a tidal wave. It looked like it was about to crash down and wipe out everything from Palo Alto on up. It’s the heat inland that brings the fog, you know. I read an article on it; it’s a cycle, a cyclical thing, heating up, the fog coming in, cooling off, and then there’s a few clear days while—”
During this informative monologue, Kate led her visitor into the kitchen, switched on the electrical baseboard radiator and waved her hand at the chair nearest it, walked over to the coffee machine, abandoned that, and went out of the kitchen (Jules raised her voice but did not slow down a fraction), coming back with the tan alpaca throw rug that lived on the back of the sofa, dropped it on Jules’s lap, then returned to the coffeepot, where she went like an automaton through the familiar motions of beans and grinder, filter and water before switching it on and standing, one hip against the counter and arms akimbo, completely oblivious to Jules’s voice, watching with unfocused eyes as the brown liquid began to trickle out into the carafe, the gears of her mind unmeshed, idling, blessedly near to stillness, to sleep.…
“Are you angry, Kate?”
Startled into awakeness, Kate turned and nearly knocked a coffee mug from the edge of the counter.
“Jules! Hi. Yes. No, I mean, I’m not angry. Why should I be angry?”
“You looked annoyed when you opened the door. I must’ve gotten you out of bed.”
“All kinds of people get me out of bed. No, I’m not angry. Are you warmer now? Want something hot to drink? You probably don’t like coffee.”
“I like coffee, if you have milk and sugar.”
“Sure. Ah. This milk doesn’t look very nice,” she noted as the watery blue blobs slid from the carton into the cup. She squinted at the due date. “Looks more like yogurt. I don’t suppose you want yogurt in your coffee? Doesn’t smell very nice, either.”
“No, thank you,” said Jules politely. “Black with sugar will be fine, but just half a cup, please.”
“Fine, fine,” said Kate, and nodded half a dozen times before she caught herself and took the milk carton and the mug to the sink to empty them. She rinsed the mug, dumped the milk down the drain, pushed the carton into the overflowing garbage can under the sink (hurriedly closing the door), then took out sugar, spoon, and another mug, and resumed her position in front of the gurgling, steaming coffeemaker, watching the coffee dribble slowly, hypnotically out.
“Are you all right?” interrupted the voice behind her. Kate’s head snapped upright again.
“Yes, of course. Just not awake yet.”
“It is nearly nine o’clock,” said Jules in mild accusation.
“Yes, and I went to bed at five. I haven’t been sleeping well lately. Look, Jules, are you just here for a friendly visit? Because if so, I’m not very good company.”
“No. I need to talk to you. Professionally.”
Oh hell. Kate scrubbed her face with both hands. A lost dog or a playground bully. The neighbor exposing himself. Do I need this?
“I wouldn’t bother you if it wasn’t important. Weren’t. And I have tried the local police.”
“Okay, Jules, I’m not going to throw you out. Just give me ten minutes to jump-start the brain and then I’ll put on my cop hat for you.”
“I didn’t think homicide detectives wore uniforms.”
“A feeble attempt at humor.” She poured the coffee into two mugs and carried both of them out of the room. “There’s food if you want, Jules,” she called from the stairs.
A minute later, Jules heard the shower start. At twelve, she was, both by nature and through her mother’s distracted style of nurturing, quite able to look after herself. She stood up and folded the alpaca throw neatly over the back of the chair, and began a systematic search of the kitchen cabinets and drawers. She found half a loaf of rock-hard French bread and some eggs in the refrigerator, a few strips of bacon in the freezer compartment, a bowl and a frying pan behind the low doors, then began with deliberate movements to assemble them into breakfast. She had to lean her entire weight against the Chinese cleaver to chop the bread into something resembling slices, and substitute frozen orange juice concentrate for the milk, but she had just decided that necessity may have given birth to an interesting invention when a ghastly noise from upstairs, half shriek and half growl, froze her arm in the motion of shaking nutmeg into the bowl. Before the noise had faded, though, she resumed, realizing that Kate was only reacting to a stream of suddenly cold water. Al made the same sorts of noises in the shower sometimes, though not quite so loud. When she had asked about it, he told her that it helped him wake up. She’d never had the nerve to try it herself, and reflected that it must be something they taught you at the Police Academy. She found a sugar bowl and added a large pinch to the beaten eggs.
Kate bounded down the stairs a few minutes later and burst into the kitchen.
“God, it smells like a Denny’s in here. What have you been making?”
“There’s a plate of French toast for you, if you want it, and some bacon. I couldn’t find any syrup, but there’s warm honey and jam and powdered sugar.”
Kate swallowed five thick slices and more than her share of the bacon, stopping only because Jules ran out of bread. She ran the last corner of the eggy, buttery fried bread through the pool of liquified honey, put it into her mouth, and sighed.
“I take back the insult. It smells like heaven and tasted like paradise, and what do I have to do to pay you back for it?”
“It’s your food; you don’t have to pay for it.”
“Wrong. Rule one of being an adult: Nothing in life is free. So, what do you want, how did you get here, and do people know where you are?”
“I took the bus and walked from the station. I actually thought I’d have more trouble, because I’ve only been here once, but your house is easy to find from downtown. You just walk uphill.”
“Well, that answers the least of the questions, anyway. Do we need to make a phone call so somebody doesn’t report you missing?”
“Not really. I left at my normal time this morning—I’m going to a summer school course at the university on writing software. It’s really interesting, and I’m sorry to miss today because we work in teams, so I’m wasting my partner’s time, but he’s always got something of his own he can do. He’s a genius—a true genius, I mean, his IQ’s even higher than mine. He sold a game to Atari when he was ten, and he’s working on another version of it now, so he won’t worry or anything if I don’t show up. In fact, he might not notice; he has a strange sense of time when he’s working. Anyway, nobody expects me home until three or four. Mom arranged for me to have dinner with the family next door while she’s gone, and their daughter Trini, who’s only two years older than I am and a real airhead—but because she’s older, they think she’s somehow magically more responsible—she stays the night with me. May I use your bathroom?”
“Huh? Oh, sure, it’s under the stairs there.”
Kate, detective that she was, had caught the one relevant fact as it shot past her, that she had six hours to return this short person back to her proper place. She began to shovel the breakfast things in the musty-smelling dishwasher, pausing first to pour the last of the coffee into her cup. Not that caffeine would enable her to keep up with Jules Cameron. Cocaine, maybe. Although, come to think of it, Jules had changed in the last year. Physically, of course: She was nearly as tall as Kate now, and she wore a bra between her T-shirt and the nubs on her chest. More than that, though, was her attitude: At eleven, she had brazened out her turmoil—braces, brains, no father, and a long-distance move could not have been easy—with an almost comic maturity, even pomposity, to her speech. That seemed to have been toned down, either by design or because she’d grown out of the need. Kate hoped the latter—it would be a pity to have this little gem shove her light under a basket because of the lesser minds around her. Particularly, Kate reflected, those inhabiting male bodies. Jules must be getting to the age where these things mattered.
She finished loading the dishwasher, turned it on, and went out into the living room, where she found Jules looking out into the fog, where the neighbor’s garden was beginning to materialize.
“Was it this window?” Jules asked.
It took an instant to click.
“The one above you.” She watched Jules step back to peer up, then retreat farther until she could see the branches that had held the SWAT marksman on a night eighteen months earlier.
“From that tree?”
“It wasn’t Al, was it? Who shot … that man.”
“Of course not.”
“I didn’t think so. I mean, I was young then, and I sort of imagined it was Al up in the tree, even though I knew it wasn’t.”
“Al doesn’t climb trees. It’s in his contract. So,” she said sharply before Jules could inquire about contract clauses or ask to see the bloodstains that lay, all but invisible to any eyes but Kate’s, three inches to the right of her foot, hidden beneath the new Tibetan carpet, “what is it you want me to do for you? ‘Professionally.’”
It was a long and convoluted tale, filled with extraneous detail and looping into unnecessary excursions, speculations, and a preteenager’s philosophical reflections, mature and mawkish by turns, but Kate was an experienced interrogator, and if she lacked Al Hawkin’s natural ability to read and lead the person being questioned, she had at least learned how to keep things on track.
Jules went to a private school. To the parent of a public school child, the idea of private school evokes high academic standards and close discipline, a broad education for already bright children balanced with encouraging each student to develop his or her own interests and abilities to the fullest. This paradisaical image loses some of its solidity once inside the walls of the ivory tower (“I mean,” commented Jules, “two of the high school girls got pregnant last year, how’s that for brains?”), but it can be said that the teaching is no worse than that of a public school, and classes are certainly smaller. Too, a privately funded school is safe from the state’s fiscal blackmailers, who had turned most of the schools in the area where Jules lived into year-round schools, with students popping in and out of one another’s desks for twelve months of the year. Where parents pay the bills, parents choose the calendar, and it was no accident that many of the parents whose children went to school with Jules taught on nine-month schedules at colleges and universities. The date for the school’s winter music program was always chosen with an eye to the university’s exam schedule. With this groundwork out of the way, and reduced to an adult perspective, Jules’s narrative amounted to the following.
Immediately after university grades had been posted the previous June, Jani Cameron had picked up her bags and her daughter and flown to Germany to examine certain manuscripts in Köln, Berlin, and Düsseldorf. Jani spent the two weeks in quiet ecstasy and filled two notebooks with references and addenda to the manuscript she was hoping to finish before October.
Her daughter was less than ecstatic. Jani had never gotten around to teaching Jules German, for one thing, and then she arbitrarily ruled that Jules could not go beyond hotel, park, or library without her mother—that is, she could not go. Kate had the strong impression that some dark unpleasantness had taken place, and her detective instincts stirred, but she was not sure how much of that impression was from Jules’s dramatization of a mere argument, so she decided not to allow herself to be distracted. At the end of the two weeks, as mother and daughter packed to leave for San Francisco, Jani was brought out of her academic dream to the harsh realization that her remarkable but normally reasonable little girl was deeply entrenched in a case of the adolescent sulks.
No, Jules had not had a good time. She did not like to play in parks with children; she did not care for libraries filled with books she could not read; she did not think it unreasonable that she hadn’t learned German in fourteen days. Furthermore, she did not like having been taken from her friends and from a summer school offering in computer programming that interested her, just to tag along behind her mother.
The two Cameron women fought with polite implacability all the way across the Atlantic, interrupted only by meals and the movie, which Jules watched while her mother pretended to sleep, trying desperately to absorb this radical change in her daughter. By the time the plane touched down in San Francisco, they had come to an agreement. The next morning, Jani sat down at her desk while Jules went off to talk her way into a late registration at the computer course. As they nodded off over their respective keyboards, both felt a sense of uneasy victory beneath the heavy fog of their jet lag, and a vague awareness of business unfinished.
All of which was to say that, while Jani wrote her book and edged further into her relationship with Inspector Alonzo Hawkin of the San Francisco Police Department, Jules had a great deal of time on her own. She went to school four mornings a week to fill the crevices of her voracious mind with the intricacies of RAMs and ROMs, artificial intelligence and virtual reality, but the afternoons and weekends, which normally she might have spent at home reading or floating in their apartment house’s minuscule pool, she spent on her own, pointedly away from her mother’s presence. Friends were thin on the ground in July and August, sprinkled across the globe from Yosemite to Tashkent, but there were enough left to keep Jules from boredom, and there was her computer partner, and there were the library and the bilingual books her mother had ordered so that she could start on German, and there was the larger swimming pool in the park, and the park itself to read in.
Which was where she had met Dio.
“It must be a nickname,” said Jules. “I mean, who would name their kid God, except maybe a rock star or something? He said it was his real name, but another time he said his mother was secretly in love with some piano player named Claudio and named Dio after him. He never told me his last name.”
Dio lived in the park. It was both an indication of Jules’s naïveté and the unlikely surroundings that she had not believed him. She’d seen him before, a few times in early July and then more often. Finally, in the last week of July, he came and sat next to her and asked what she was reading. He seemed baffled that she would want to learn German; he was more interested in one of her other books, a novel by Anne McCaffrey, and settled down at a distance from her for the rest of the afternoon, reading. He read slowly, and asked her what a couple of words meant, but he was possessed by the book. When it was time for Jules to go home, Dio asked hesitantly if she would mind if he borrowed it. It was a paperback and belonged to her, so she let him take it, said she’d be in the park again the following afternoon. She then went home to dinner.
He was there the next day, and the next. He returned the book as if it were a precious stone, she gave him another one, and they read in odd companionship for the rest of that week.
And he was odd, she had to admit that. Or, no, not odd himself, but there was something strange about him. It was not merely that his hair was long, though clean, or that he seemed to have only two T-shirts—neither of these made him stand out even in a wealthy neighborhood. However, he seemed to have no family or friends, he never bought an ice cream or brought a snack, and he seemed uneasy at accepting anything from Jules. Then she discovered that he did not have a library card—an inconceivable impoverishment to Jules. He was vague about where he lived, what school he went to. And he wouldn’t come to dinner when Jules invited him. That was the final straw.
“What is it with you?” she had asked irritably. “You’re this big mystery man all the time. Every time I ask anything about you, you look off into space and mutter. I don’t care if your father’s a garbage-man or something, or if you don’t have one. I don’t have a father, but that doesn’t mean I won’t go to a friend’s house for dinner. I thought we were friends, anyway. Aren’t we?”
Well, um, er, yes, but.
“You don’t have to invite me to your house if it’s dirty or something. Mom’s making hamburgers, is all, and she said I could invite you.”
“You told your mother about me? What did you tell her? What’d she say?”
“I told her there was a new kid I’d met in the park who liked to read, and she said, ‘That’s nice, honey,’ and went back to work. She’s writing a book.” That distracted him.
“What kind of book?”
“Like I told you, her field is medieval German literature. This one is on marriage as a symbolic something or other. Pretty boring, really. I looked at a few pages, and even I couldn’t make any sense of them. So, will you come to dinner?”
“Your mother will ask questions, and her cop boyfriend”—“Sorry, Kate, that’s what he said,” Jules explained—“will come looking for me.”
“Why, are you some kind of criminal?”
“No! I mean, in a way. He might think I was. Thing is, Jules, I live here, in the park.”
There followed a lengthy discussion with an incredulous Jules slowly being convinced that yes, a person could actually sleep here, could live in the gaps of her own staid community. Actually, Kate had to admit, the boy sounded smart, and he had found an ideal place for a residence—for the summer, at any rate. He bathed in the backyard swimming pools of dark houses; he ate from the garbage cans of the rich and the fruit trees and tomato vines of the weekend gardeners. He even earned a bit of money, posing as a neighborhood kid willing to mow lawns and do chores (of whom Kate could imagine there were few enough in that particular town). He probably did his share of trying for unlocked back doors and helping himself to small items from cars, but without a criminal brotherhood to back him up, he would have found it a problem to fence goods or sell drugs on any scale. No, he sounded like a springtime runaway who had discovered a superior resting place, an urban Huck Finn’s island, until the winter drove him in, into the arms of the city’s predators. Kate wished him luck, but she had seen too many of them to hold out much hope, or to feel a great urgency to action.
Jules, however, was worried. Not just because he was without a home—she, too, had read enough Mark Twain to take the edge off the reality the newspapers told her about—and not for fear of what the harder life of October would push him toward. She was worried because he had disappeared.
Kate let her talk on, half-hearing the anxious recital of her visit to the police and sheriff’s office, the patrolman who had laughed at her, the park maintenance man who had told her to go home, the downstairs neighbor, Señora Hidalgo, who had thrown a fit when she heard Jules admit to speaking to a stranger and then had listened no more. Kate had known what was coming from the moment Jules had mentioned a boy in the park with an unlikely name. The only surprises were the resourcefulness of the runaway and the persistence of the girl who had befriended him. Kate also noticed, when she more or less automatically got a physical description of the boy from Jules, the complete lack of romance in the girl’s words. Dio was clearly a friend, not an adolescent fantasy.
“I know that Al would help,” Jules was saying, “but he and Mom won’t be back until the day after tomorrow, and I would have called him and asked him to make the police listen to me, but then I remembered you, and I thought you might help me look for Dio, at least until Al gets back.”
Kate felt her professional cynicism gently nudged by this declaration of faith—until she called forcefully to mind just whom she was dealing with here, stared hard into the large, innocent, barely-out-of-childhood hazel eyes before her, and saw reflected in them the dim, cool glow of a computer display. Kate, Kate, she chided herself, lack of sleep is no excuse for being taken in by the patter of a twelve-year-old con woman. The kid knew damn well that Kate would jump through flaming hoops for her. Al Hawkin was Kate’s partner, but he was also her superior; Al was fighting hard to make points with Jani Cameron; the way to Jani Cameron was through her daughter; therefore, performing this small service would ultimately boost her, Kate’s, position. Kate might even work harder to find Dio than Al would—but that was getting too cold-blooded, and surely the timing of Al’s absence was coincidental.
“Right,” she said dryly, letting Jules know that she hadn’t fallen for it. Nonetheless, she would look. Sure, the boy was likely to be in Los Angeles, or working the streets closer to home, but she was not about to tell that to Jules. Not her job, thank God, to educate a privileged and protected girl about the monsters lurking in the shadows, about the parents with the moral awareness of three-year-olds who, when faced with the problems of a child, be it a crying infant or a prickly teenager, took the simple response of hitting it or getting rid of it. Disposable children, Dio and thousands like him, thrown away by his family, picked up by a pimp for a few years, and thrown away again to die of drugs and disease and the depredations of life in the streets. He had started by bathing in the swimming pools of affluent families, but that wasn’t what he was doing now.
None of this to Miss Jules Cameron, however. Something prettier.
“Jules, the policeman you talked to was probably right. I know street people, and the chances are very good he just left—for a few days or weeks, or permanently. Yes, I know he wouldn’t have left without telling you, but what if he had to? What if, say, his parents showed up and he didn’t want to go home? Wouldn’t he then just take off without a word until the coast was clear?” Kate hurried over the thin patches in this argument. “Does he know how to get in touch with you?”
“Yes. I gave him a notebook for a present, a little one, to fit in his pocket. It had a rainbow on the front. He told me he didn’t know when his birthday was, which is ridiculous, of course. I still can’t think why he wouldn’t tell me that—you can’t trace someone by his date of birth, can you? Anyway, I gave him an unbirthday party, made him some microwave brownies with candles and some ice cream, though by the time we ate it, the ice cream was melted and we had to use it like a sauce, and for his present I bought him the notebook. I wrote his name on the front page, just Dio, but in Gothic script, using a calligraphy pen, and on the second page I put my name and address and phone number. You think he’s in trouble, don’t you?” she said abruptly. “Kidnapped by a serial killer and tortured to death, like that one up in Seattle, or the man you and Al caught, Andrew Lewis. You just don’t want to tell me.”
So much for pretty deceptions. Kate ran her fingers through her still-damp hair, thinking idly that she would really have to get it cut. “That was a completely different thing, Jules, you know that.”
“But there is someone killing people up in Seattle. He just goes on and on. What if he moved down here?”
“Jules,” Kate said firmly, “stop trying to frighten yourself. He’s killing young women, not homeless boys.” Five of them so far, and granted, all were young and small and most of them had cropped hair, but still.
“You’re right,” Jules said, and let out a long sigh. “I always let my imagination run away with me. In fact, sometimes I—” She stopped, and looked away.
“Sometimes you what?”
“Oh, nothing. It’s stupid. It’s just that when I was little, I used to believe that if I could imagine something bad, it wouldn’t happen to me. Childish, huh?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Kate said slowly. “It’s always the unexpected things that knock you for a loop.”
Jules glanced at her quickly, then away again. “Yeah, well. It was probably some psychological interpretation of a statistical probability, like saying lightning won’t strike the same place twice. I used to lie in bed at night trying to think of all the terrible things that might happen, and it was always a relief to come up with something really awful, because if I could imagine it clearly enough, it was as if it had actually happened, and then I would know that at least I was safe from that.”
The adult vocabulary combined with the earnestness of youth made it difficult to get a grip on Jules Cameron, but for the moment Kate put aside the question of what Jules was telling her and went for the most immediate consideration.
“Jules, I truly do not think you need to worry about serial killers and torture murders. The newspapers make you think that kind of thing happens all the time, and sure, there are a lot of things someone like Dio can get into, things that are not very nice. The world isn’t a good place for a kid on his own. But I think it’s much more likely that, for reasons known only to himself, Dio decided suddenly to move on. And I do honestly think he may just show up again. Without more information, I can’t do much for you, and of course you realize that I personally have very little authority outside of San Francisco. However, I will go and ask a few questions, see what I can find out about him, see if I can set the ball rolling. Okay?”
“Thank you.” She practically whispered it, overcome by the relief of a burden handed over. For a moment, she looked very young.
“I want you to remember two things, Jules. First of all, Dio seems to be pretty resourceful at taking care of himself. Most kids end up living in boxes under an overpass and falling in with some real shit—with some really rotten characters. Your Dio sounds fairly clever, and I’d say that if he manages to avoid drugs, he has a good chance of staying on his feet.”
“He hates drugs. He told me once they make him sick, and they killed his mother. It’s the only time he said anything about her, when he was telling me where his name came from, and I think he meant it. Both parts of it.”
Jules did not seem to have faced the implication that if the boy knew that drugs made him ill, he at least had to have tried something, but Kate was not about to point this out, either.
“I hope so. The other thing to remember is, even if he has taken off, even if, God forbid, he’s dead, he had a friend—you. A lot of runaways never do make friends, not normal friends. It’s something to be proud of, Jules.” To Kate’s horror, the child’s lips began to twitch and her eyes fill. Jesus, after the last few days, all she needed was another scene. She moved to cut it off. “However, I also agree with Señora Hidalgo. Befriending some stranger in a park is a damn fool thing to do, and if I were your mother, I’d turn you over my knee.”
As the words left her mouth, Kate wondered why on earth conversing with a child invariably turned her into a cliché-mouthing maiden aunt, alternately hearty and judgmental. Don’t interrupt, child. It’s not polite to point. Wash your mouth out with soap. However, in this case it did the trick: Jules’s eyes went instantly dry, her chin rose.
“My mother never hits me. She says it’s a shameful abuse of superior strength.”
“So it is. But I’d still do it. However,” she said, rising, “I’m not your mother, and I don’t want you riding the bus home. Let me put on some shoes and I’ll drive you back.”
“But you have to be at work today. They told me.”
“Only on call, and then not until tonight. There’s loads of time.”
“You should go back to sleep, then.”
“I’ll sleep later. Nobody dies on a Tuesday night.”
“Look, Jules, do you have some reason you don’t want me to drive you home? Hiding something, maybe?”
“Of course not.”
“Fine. I’ll go and put on my shoes. Be back in a minute.”
“Okay. And Kate? Thank you.”
* * *
IN THE BASEMENT GARAGE, Jules paused between the two cars. She looked at the gleaming white Saab convertible up on its blocks, and then she took in Kate’s dented, scruffy Japanese model, covered with road dirt and smeared with engine grease from the recent repairs, strewn inside with debris and rubbish. She said nothing, just took an empty pretzel box from the floor and with fastidious fingernails gathered up the apple cores and grape stems and dropped them into the box along with the paper coffee cups, empty wrappers, grease-stained paper bags, and generic garbage. She ran out of room in the pretzel box and used a McDonald’s sack for the remainder, then neatly placed both box and bag on the cement floor of the garage just under the driver’s door of Lee’s car. She carefully gathered up all the cassette tapes from the seat before getting in, then set about matching nineteen scattered tapes to their boxes while Kate backed out of the garage and headed toward the nearest freeway entrance. By the time they had negotiated the most recent route complications, inserted themselves into the flow of determined truckers, and dodged the inevitable panic-stricken station wagons with midwestern plates that decided at the last moment that they needed to get off right now, Jules had the tapes securely boxed and arranged in their zippered pouch, the titles up and facing the same way. She placed the zip bag on the floor under her knees, put her hands in her lap, narrowed her eyes at the truck in front of them, and spoke.
Kate took a deep breath and flexed her hands on the wheel.
“Lee is visiting an aunt, up in Washington.”
“We used to live in Seattle, when I was really small. I don’t remember it. She must be feeling better, then.”
“She must be.” Kate felt the child’s eyes on her.
“How long has she been away?”
“I just got back this morning from taking her.”
“You drove her? That’s a long way, isn’t it? Is she phobic about flying?”
“She just finds it difficult, with her legs,” said Kate evenly, giving absolutely no indication in her voice of the previous two weeks, of the nasty surprises and the queasy blend of loneliness, abandonment, sheer rage, and the dregs of the worst hangover she’d had for many years.
“I suppose she would,” said Jules thoughtfully. “Planes are so crowded anyway; with crutches, they’d be awful. Or does she still use the wheelchair?”
“Sometimes, but mostly she uses arm braces.”
“And didn’t you have a man living in the house, too? Lee’s caretaker. I met him. Jon, without the h.”
“He’s away for a while, too.”
“So you’re all alone. Do you like being alone in the house?” When Kate did not answer immediately, she continued. “I do. I like coming home to a house—or to an apartment, in my case—when you know nobody’s there and nobody will be there for a while. I can’t wait until Mom thinks I’m old enough to stay by myself. It’s a real pain, having Trini the airhead there all the time. She’s all right, but she takes up so much space, somehow, and she always has music going. I like being alone, for a while anyway. I don’t know how I’d like it all the time. I guess I’d get lonely, at night especially. How long will Lee be gone?”
“I don’t know.” Now Kate’s control was slipping, and she heard the edge in her voice. Jules looked at her again.
“How are her legs, anyway? Al said she could get around pretty well, compared with what they were expecting—”
“Let’s not talk about Lee anymore,” Kate said, her voice friendly but the warning signs clear. “I’m totally pissed off at her right now. Okay? Tell me, what’s that say on your shirt?”
Jules dropped her chin to look at the foreign writing. “It says, ‘Panta bellenike estin emoi.’ That means, ‘It’s all Greek to me.’ This guy in my programming class puts himself through college by selling T-shirts. I thought this one was kinda neat.”
Kinda neat, Kate thought with a smile, and the psychological interpretations of statistical probabilities. “Tell me about your class,” she suggested. The topic lasted Jules until Palo Alto, when Kate left the freeway and asked for directions to the park.
Copyright © 1996 by Laurie R. King